Dogs and cats can’t brush, spit, gargle or floss on their own. So owners who want to avoid bad pet breath will need to lend a hand.
“Brushing is the gold standard for good oral hygiene at home. It is very effective, but some dogs and more cats don’t appreciate having something in their mouth,” said Dr. Colin Harvey, a professor of surgery and dentistry in the Department of Clinical Studies for the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
The bulk of bad breath odor – the trademark rotten egg smell – comes from hydrogen sulfide, which is waste from anaerobic bacteria that thrive without oxygen in places like gaps between teeth and gums. Plaque buildup also invites the bacteria, and as the accumulation grows, so does the smell.
Animal shelters and rescues know bad breath and filthy teeth can be a deal breaker. Some shelters, such as the Humane Society of Vero Beach & Indian River County in Florida, shuffle their charges through a dental health program before the animals are adopted out.
“We usually do dental cleanings and extractions when animals are spayed or neutered so the animal doesn’t have to be put under anesthesia again after adoption and the adopter has one less thing to worry about,” said Janet Winikoff, the shelter’s director of education.
If a pet is already spayed or neutered, it will still get dental care before adoption, she said. Harvey added that bad breath could also be a symptom of an underlying medical problem.
Stacy Silva, Santa Barbara County Animal Services’ community outreach coordinator, noted that wear on teeth could give the wrong impression of an animal’s age. The animals “may look a lot older than their teeth, and it may just be a matter of cleaning the tartar off that gets them back looking their age and that helps them to be adopted,” said Silva.
The animals that need a cleaning get chew toys or ropes, hard treats or cookies and a prescription diet if the vet orders it, she said.
Harvey, who has been director of the Veterinary Oral Health Council since it was founded in 1970, said such products are good substitutes for a teeth-brushing. Pet owners can try a combination or use other products such as water additives, chew toys, plaque and tartar cleaners, and dental diets, Harvey said.
Puppies and kittens are born toothless. They get their baby teeth before they’re a month old, lose them three to five months later and get their permanent teeth by age 1. Dogs have 42 teeth and cats have 30.
Toy dogs tend to have more dental problems because breeding for their smaller size hasn’t caught up with evolution, Harvey said. “Primitive dogs had a standard size and shape because they were evolved from wolves,” but for toy breeds, their jaw size was reduced and tooth size was not, “so their teeth are too large for their mouths,” he added.
Christie Keith, a communications consultant to animal welfare and veterinarian groups, said she spends about two minutes each night brushing the teeth of her three dogs after dinner. The Davisburg, Mich., resident believes most dog owners needlessly fear brushing their dogs’ teeth.
“But cats are another story,” she added.
Harvey said that’s because cats’ mouths are smaller, their teeth sharper and they could not care less about bonding with a human during designated tooth time.
Keith said she took it slow when she began brushing the teeth of her 8-year-old greyhound Val. She started with one tooth at a time and used a foamless flavored gel that dogs can swallow.
“She started to nibble (on the toothbrush) and I rubbed it on her front teeth. I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I didn’t worry about brushing the first half dozen times. It was just a little bonding thing. Eventually, I brushed one tooth. Now she stands there and lets me brush all her teeth,” she said.
The gel doesn’t require water to rinse, lessening the likelihood of a mess. A year later, Val’s “gums look healthy to me, and it doesn’t seem she has any more tartar,” Keith said.
Oral care products for animals are generally not regulated by any federal agency, although the Food and Drug Administration monitors all products that claim to prevent or slow disease. The agency does not test products that claim cleaner teeth, fresher breath or the reduction of plaque and tartar, Harvey said.
The VOHC is not a regulatory agency but it uses American Dental Association guidelines to test pet plaque and tartar products. Test requests are voluntary but companies pay nonrefundable submission and annual maintenance fees. Products are given a VOHC seal if they pass.
The council has approved a human, ADA-compliant, flathead toothbrush with soft bristles and rounded tips for pet use. A child’s brush can be used for small pets and an adult size for big dogs, but don’t use human toothpaste on pets, Harvey warned.
Such toothpastes contain detergents that foam and pets will swallow it instead of spitting it out, he said.
Harvey said he can’t comment on any product VOHC hasn’t tested, but as a rule, any wipe, tongue cleaner or additive should be beneficial – although nothing beats brushing.